There is increasing interest in the use of the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a tool for parasitic nematode research and there are now a number of compelling examples of its successful application. C. elegans has the potential to become a standard tool for molecular helminthology researchers, just as yeast is routinely used by molecular biologists to study vertebrate biology. However, in order to exploit C. elegans in a meaningful manner, we need a detailed understanding of the extent to which different aspects of C. elegans biology have been conserved with particular groups of parasitic nematodes. This review first considers the current state of knowledge regarding the conservation of genome organisation across the nematode phylum and then discusses some recent evolutionary development studies in free-living nematodes. The aim is to provide some important concepts that are relevant to the extrapolation of information from C. elegans to parasitic nematodes and also to the interpretation of experiments that use C. elegans as a surrogate expression system. In general, examples have been specifically chosen because they highlight the importance of careful experimentation and interpretation of data. Consequently, the focus is on the differences that have been found between nematode species rather than the similarities. Finally, there is a detailed discussion of the current status of C. elegans as a heterologous expression system to study parasite gene function and regulation using successful examples from the literature.